Helping switchgrass survive winter will boost its biofuel potential
By Michigan State University
Robin Buell, MSU plant biologist. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz
July 30, 2014 - Michigan State University has been awarded $1M from a joint U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture program to develop hardier switchgrass, a plant native to North America that holds high potential as a biofuel source.
If switchgrass could better endure northern United States' winters, the plant could be an even better source for clean energy. To that end, Robin Buell, MSU plant biologist, will work to identify the genetic factors that regulate cold hardiness in switchgrass.
"This project will explore the genetic basis for cold tolerance that will permit the breeding of improved switchgrass cultivars that can yield higher biomass in northern climates," said Buell, also an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. "It's part of an ongoing collaboration with scientists in the USDA Agricultural Research Service to explore diversity in native switchgrass as a way to improve its yield and quality as a biofuel feedstock."
One of the proposed methods to increase the biomass of switchgrass is to grow lowland varieties in northern latitudes, where they flower later in the season. Lowland switchgrass is not adapted to the colder conditions of a northern climate, however, and merely a small percentage of the plants survive. It is these hardy survivors that are the subject of Buell's research.
"Dr. Buell's investment in this collaborative project will identify important genetic elements in switchgrass that control survival over the winter and can be used to breed better adapted cultivars to meet biomass production needs," said Richard Triemer, chairperson of the plant biology department.
By studying switchgrass' genetic composition, Buell hopes to identify alternative forms of the same gene that is responsible for cold hardiness. These could then be applied in breeding programs for switchgrass that can thrive in northern climates.
The research is an extension of Buell's involvement in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a collaborative enterprise between MSU, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the U.S. Department of Energy that works to meet the nation's need for a comprehensive suite of clean energy technologies.